A survey conducted in 15 states and Union Territories in August has shown that 97% of parents of underprivileged children in rural India want schools to reopen as soon as possible.

Schools were closed in March last year when the coronavirus pandemic triggered an abrupt nationwide lockdown. Some states have resumed in-person classes for secondary students as the second wave of Covid-19 abated, but there is no clarity on when younger children will be able to return to their classrooms.

A report based on the survey of nearly 1,400 schoolchildren showed the devastating impact of online education in underprivileged households. The report has been prepared by economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, and researcher Vipul Paikra, along with nearly 100 volunteers.

“The results of a simple reading test are particularly alarming: nearly half of all children in the sample were unable to read more than a few words,” the report said. “Most parents feel that their child’s reading and writing abilities have gone down during the lockout. They are desperately waiting for schools to reopen. Indeed, for many of them, school education is the only hope that their children will have a better life than their own.”

In Maharashtra, children of a family from the Katkari community have not received any online or offline materials throughout the lockdown. Photo: Arati Tawade

When the survey was carried out in early August, the report stated that only 8% of children were regularly studying via online classes in rural areas of the country. It added that 37% of children were not studying at all.

One of the primary causes of this, the report said, was that many households had no access to smartphones. “Even among households with a smartphone, the proportion of children who are studying online regularly is just 31% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas,” the report added.

Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh have “virtually” done nothing to ensure that those who did not have access to online classes were studying in “one way or another” during the closure of schools, the report said.

On the other hand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan, had asked teachers to visit the homes of students to give advice and assign offline work to children as homework. But despite this, the results of most of these efforts are “far from satisfactory”, the report said.

“Homework is often beyond the understanding of the child, and many children get no feedback on their homework,” it added. “In any case, homework is a poor substitute for classroom learning, especially for children who are deprived of any help at home.”

A boy struggles to read a sentence in Hindi in Jharkhand (left). A boy carries around a phone charger, looking for a place to charge his phone, since his home doesn’t have electricity (right). Photo: Divya Pathak/ Mukesh Bishnoi

In urban areas, only 23% of parents felt that their child had “adequate online access”, while in rural areas it was just 8%.

The report added: “Another major hurdle, especially in rural areas, is that the school is not sending online material, or if it is, parents are not aware of it. Some children, particularly the younger ones, lack understanding of online study in any case, or find it difficult to concentrate.”

Moreover, two-thirds of parents in urban areas said that their child’s reading and writing abilities have declined during the lockdown.

The report also highlighted that only 4% of children from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were studying online regularly, as compared to 15% of other children in rural areas. “Barely half of them were able to read more than a few letters in the reading test,” it said. “Among rural SC/ST parents, a full 98% wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.”

Many parents were aware of the “colossal damage” Covid-19 has had on their child’s education. “The child’s life is being ruined,” they told volunteers to convey their anguish.

Children from Dhangar community in Maharashtra have been helping their family rear goats and sheep since the schools closed down. Photo: Shrivani Jagtap

Children will find themselves “thrice removed” from the curriculum when schools reopen for them, the report warned.

“A child who was enrolled in Grade 3 before the lockout, but actually did not master the curriculum beyond Grade 2 because of her disadvantaged position, and now finds herself closer to Grade 1 in that respect, is enrolled in Grade 5 today, and will be promoted to the upper-primary level in a few months’ time,” the report said.

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